As a collection care volunteer at the Museum of London I work closely with conservators on all different types of collections. Something I don’t think I really understood before I began working behind the scenes was the sheer range of objects the Museum of London has and the complexities of looking after them. The complexities extend beyond looking after specific materials like paper, fabrics and metal but the challenge of dealing with objects made of composite materials.
As part of my collection care training I cleaned a cinema chair, it was made of wood, fabric, metal, natural fibres in the seat padding and even chewing gum! I became incredibly attached to my project and whilst crouched on my knees gently cleaning every nook and cranny I wondered about all the films that had been watched and the hands and bums that had rested on this very commonplace object.
You begin to realise the more time you spend with objects that any treatment or action that may help stabilise an object or deal with a problem, like pest infestation, has to take into account the effect that will have on all the materials that make up the object. Conservators work under an ethos of minimal intervention, which must be reversible where possible and every step of the process is documented.
I have talked about the work I see behind the scenes and it is a real privilege to have that access as a volunteer. It is a great shame that conservators rarely get a chance to show their skill and expertise. Their work load spans everyday collection care to in-depth work preparing objects for exhibitions as well as all work that goes into an object before it can be loaned to another museum.
We see the end of the process but rarely the hours and hours of work that have gone into an object. That work is often much more than preserving, saving and restoring, sometimes it is simply understanding what an object is, how it has been made, how it was used. Objects can tell us about their owners, they can tell us about society but they don’t always give up their secrets easily.
‘Revealing the Past’ is a small free exhibition currently on display at the Museum of London that is part of a series called ‘Looking for Londoners’. Here conservators are getting a chance to showcase their skills and techniques and even the kind of investigative work that Sherlock Holmes would be proud of.
Helen Ganiaris, a conservation manager at the museum has taken some time out to show me around the exhibition and highlight some of the objects and techniques displayed.
Straight away you realise this is not a conventional display, the largest case contains organic materials like leather, wool and textiles. These objects, ranging from a medieval shoe to a fragment of leather jerkin have only managed to survive the centuries because they have been preserved in wet muddy conditions that seal the objects and prevent deterioration. Mudlarkers find the most amazing objects along the river bank of the Thames. Even excavations in the centre of London can reveal the most incredible objects, such as the mystery leather panel with intricate gladiator design dug out of the Walbrook area of London.
Discovering objects is just the start of the process. Removing them whilst preventing damage is key and leather objects often need to be kept wet to preserve them or dried extremely slowly over time to stop them cracking and crumbling away. In the large case you notice a polystyrene head with a 16th century knitted cap on, but what catches my eye is the cocktail sticks with foam pieces stuck on the end. I haven’t a clue as to why they are there.
The cap was found in marshy land near Moorgate. Helen shows me pictures of how it looked when it came into the lab, a brown wet circle of something, impossible to make out. Another photograph shows the cap gently stretched over the polystyrene head, the cocktail sticks and foam kept a plastic bag away from touching the wool. The plastic bag stopped the cap from drying out too quickly and the long process prevents any further deterioration.
There is also an amazing medieval shoe where careful conservation and examination has revealed moss crammed into the toe. I love this as it makes you think of a fashion conscious Londoner who didn’t want a droopy shoe! It makes me think of the Winklepickers of the 1950s and a long line of Londoners stretching back over the centuries who cared what they wore, who thought about their image and loved keeping up with fashion. The careful examination and care of these everyday objects allows the museum to tell such amazing stories.
Helen shows me her favourite objects and I have to agree they are fantastic. A small lead alloy 15th century vessel, originally a container for bird seed, was found on the Thames foreshore by a Mudlarker in the 1980s. It was crimped shut and when carefully opened it revealed 24 small bone dice, pretty amazing even if we stop the story there. But conservators x-rayed the dice and found that 18 of them were actually loaded with mercury. Small holes had been drilled in the dice, the mercury injected in and the holes were covered over.
If you look closely at the x-ray below you can see some of the dice have mercury on one side and some on two, this meant some of the dice rolled high and some only rolled low. According to the Museum of London website gambling with dice was very popular in London in the 1500s, and crooked dice were used to fool gullible punters. Loaded dice were called ‘fulhams’ – presumably Fulham was notorious as the haunt of dice-sharpers.
Of the remaining dice three only have the numbers 1-3 and three only have the numbers 4-6, these were called high or low ‘despatchers’. I can’t help wondering how they ended up in the river, did they fall out of someone’s pocket or did someone decide to reform their character? I personally like the idea of a wife having had enough of her cheating husband and chucking his precious tools of the trade into the river.
What is really interesting for me is that these dice were actually on display in another section of the museum, and I must have walked passed them more than a dozen times and never noticed them. It is wonderful that the ‘Looking for Londoners’ display really gives these objects a chance to shine and space to tell their remarkable stories. It also highlights the work conservators do and how important their role is to the museum, not just in preserving the objects but also keeping the stories alive.
The small amount of time I have worked as a collection care volunteer has made me realise that conservators spend a massive amount of time looking very closely at objects. It builds up a connection and relationship to the past that is challenging and rewarding. The care and attention to detail not only saves and preserves objects but saves and preserves their stories too.
‘Revealing the Past’ runs until the 25th June so if you want to see the story behind some amazing objects get yourself down to the Museum of London straight away.
For the coming weeks a number of conservation staff and UCL conservation masters students will be in the museum talking about their work so do pop along if you want to know more. Dates are listed below but if you need to know specific times please do contact Helen on the email below.
The dates are:
19, 24, 26 and 31 May
email address firstname.lastname@example.org
Revealing the Past runs from 30 March – 25 June 2017 and is Free at the Museum of London
With thanks to Helen Ganiaris, all errors are purely my own.